September 17, 1928– Roddy McDowall:
“A Good Bad Movie, You Must Admit, Is Great.”
I twice encountered Roddy McDowall. The first time was at the 50th Anniversary of MGM Gala at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel in 1973, which I had successfully crashed. He was there with Elizabeth Taylor as his date, or maybe it was Taylor as his beard. He could not have been more gracious and warm. He was better looking in person than I had ever found him to be in films. The second time was at a coke fueled all-male party at the home of a famous producer in the Hollywood Hills. He couldn’t have been more gracious and friendly, and from his films I would never have guessed that McDowell was so profoundly “gifted”.
McDowall was considered to be one of the nicest people in showbiz ever. He was also known as an especially good friend, noted for being able to keep a confidence.
After winning an acting prize in a school play, little Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall found film work in England beginning when he was 10 years old. He appeared in 16 British productions before his family had to evacuated to the Los Angeles during the Battle Of Britain in 1940.
McDowall’s arrival in Hollywood coincided with 20th Century Fox’s honcho Darryl F. Zanuck‘s search for “The New Freddie Bartholomew”. Bartholomew (1924 –1992) is one of the most famous child actors of all time.
McDowall screen-tested for the young lead in John Ford‘s How Green Was My Valley (1941). He was cast in the role and he received terrific reviews, plus a contract with Fox. McDowall was cast with the then unknown Elizabeth Taylor in her first American film, Lassie Come Home (1943). Taylor and McDowall became lifelong, very close friends. Taylor’s casting in this film was an absolute fluke. The director, Fred Wilcox, simply wanted any young girl who could do an English accent. But, it was the beginning of an extraordinary career.
McDowall’s first adult job was playing Malcolm in Orson Welles‘s 1948 film version of Macbeth. Yet, except for a few exceptions, McDowall left films in the 1950s, preferring to work in television and on stage. Among his Broadway credits were No Time For Sergeants (1955); the very queer Compulsion (1957), working with fellow former child star Dean Stockwell; and as Mordred in Camelot, the famous Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical from 1960.
McDowall won a Tony Award for his performance in a short run of the play The Fighting Cock (1960), by odd coincidence a chapter header in my memoir. He returned to films, spending almost all of 1962 portraying Octavius in the mammoth film production of Cleopatra with longtime pal, guess who?
An accomplished and original photographer, McDowall’s photos of Taylor and other celebrities were frequently published in the leading magazines of his era. He was, briefly, the photographic editor of Harper’s Bazaar and he published the first of several collections of his rather extraordinary photographs, Double Exposure (1966).
McDowall went ape shit for his acting gigs between 1968 and 1975, working in elaborate simian makeup as Cornelius in the Planet Of The Apes films and television series. He kept working as an actor doing an occasional film role or stage play into the 1990s. McDowall also served on the executive boards of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences.
McDowall was a lifelong film collector, archivist and historian. In 1974, around the time I met him briefly, the FBI raided his home and seized his collection of films and television series during an investigation of film piracy and copyright infringement. His collection consisted of at least 200 16mm prints and more than 1,000 video cassettes. McDowall had purchased actor Errol Flynn‘s home movies, and the prints of his own directorial debut Tam-Lin (1970) starring Ava Gardner. He transferred them all to tape for storage. McDowall was open about the films with everyone who dealt with him. Stars such as Rock Hudson, Shelly Winters and Mel Tormé were just some of the big celebrities who gave him support in his film restoration work. No charges were brought against McDowall, but he told me was very shaken by the experience. His passion was film preservation, and he worked diligently on behalf of the National Film Preservation Board. In 1998, he was elected president of the Academy’s Film Archive.
He had a special devotion to the great female stars of the past, whom he idolized, enjoying unlikely friendships with some of the most skittish female stars, including Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish.
McDowall was one of the most loved figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age, noted for his kindness, generosity and loyalty. His announcement that he had cancer a few weeks before he died rocked the film community and many of his friends came to say good-bye to the gravely ill McDowall at his home in Studio City. Shortly before his cancer diagnosis, he had provided a voice-over for Disney/Pixar’s animated A Bug’s Life (1998). A few days before McDowall’s final credits rolled in 1999, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences named its photographic archive for him.
Tab Hunter mentions McDowall in his terrific memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making Of A Movie Star (2005):
“While making shakes at the Rexall drugstore at Hollywood and Highland, I met my first bona fide movie star. It was the night of the big 1948 Christmas parade. Dick Clayton brought along Roddy McDowall. Roddy was only 20, but he’d been in pictures his whole life. We hit it off, gabbing and laughing…”
Hunter and McDowall had posed shirtless for a Photoplay magazine spread titled Calling All Girls!.
Farley Granger writes about McDowall in his very fun and readable memoir Include Me Out (2008). Granger knew McDowell prior to joining the Navy at 18 years old. Granger:
“It was 1953. I found an apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan… My old pals Roddy McDowall and Monty Clift lived on the same block.”
McDowall and Montgomery Clift were very close and even lived together for a period, and along with Taylor they were often seen out and about town as a trio. During this time McDowall also had a short, but intense, affair with Marlon Brando, but then who didn’t.
Eddie Fisher, in his autobiography Been There, Done That (1999), mentions McDowall and his decades of hatred towards him. Fisher had first met Elizabeth Taylor at a party that Merv Griffin and McDowall had thrown in an apartment they were sharing in one of my favorite New York structures, The Dakota Apartments. Fisher:
“She spent most of the evening in a corner with her close friend Montgomery Clift. She was recently divorced from her first husband Nicky Hilton. But that damn Roddy wouldn’t let me near her.”
Lauren Bacall, in her memoir By Myself (1978):
“He was someone I always looked forward to being with, loved seeing, loved hearing from.”
McDowall was with Bette Davis during the last part of her life, taking care of her and watching out for her best interests. When Julie Andrews asked McDowall why he didn’t write a book about his life, he said:
“I have too many friends. I know too much, I couldn’t.”
McDowall has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near World of Wonder’s offices, plus there is an honorary rose garden on the lovely grounds of the Motion Picture And Television Fund with a statue of him in costume and makeup from Planet Of The Apes.
“My whole life I’ve been trying to prove I’m not just yesterday.”
Interesting that in his over 260 film and television roles, none of the characters were overtly gay, but nearly all were “gay-coded”. I also think that I would really have loved to have been real pals with McDowall. True friends are to be treasured.